The lonely, lovely road
In the first moments I was utterly taken in by the beauty of Gris. The graphical style draws elegant and intricate line art over watercolor textures. Animations are fluid and eye-catching, like the periodic flutter on the hem of the woman’s cloak. I marveled at the shifting perspective as the screen zoomed slowly out from an intimate close-up on the character to show a sprawl of collapsed architecture and poignantly desolate wastes.
The music is lilting, modern classical that strikes a bittersweet tone – the underlying mood to most of the experience as the woman continues through a lonely landscape, only able to stumble forward at first. Beginning with cold and spare piano lines, the score reacts to game progress, becoming richer and more dense as more elements like towering columns, clusters of plants, and flocks of fluttering wings appear.
The game is divided into stages and at the completion of each, another color is restored to the world, deepening the visual palette while bringing new environmental elements. Trees grow as green returns and water appears with the color blue. Stages are completed by traveling through them, collecting orbs that will complete a pattern of stars and a bridge to the next scene. Some stages are entirely linear, while others offer a few branches to varied puzzles. There are hidden Challenge orbs to collect as well, appearing slightly off the direct path, but most play time is spent guiding the woman from orb to orb to goal and then moving on to the next color stage.
Progression also awards new abilities. Transforming into a block to smash crumbling floors and resist heavy winds, and gaining the perennial double-jump allow the woman to take on more complex puzzles and challenges. The puzzles themselves are relatively straightforward, with most relying on working out the application of a newly acquired ability. More complicated puzzles call for coordinated use of abilities and careful timing. Despite an appearance similar to other platformers, the woman is never in any real danger, and there are no game over or reset screens. A couple scenes of being chased by a shadow monster just lead to a scripted ending that drops her into the next part of her journey. Mechanically, I found this lackluster, and that’s where my disappointment began.
Without any danger of death there is no immediacy or pressure, like you would find in Celeste. The most challenging moments were a few timed jumping puzzles. Failure meant climbing back to the starting point and trying again, which becomes tedious after I’d worked out the path through a space, and was just struggling to follow it.
The environments are indeed gorgeous, and worth seeing, but there isn’t much more to them than what you find on the main path. In Journey, a game famous for its focus on exploring scenery, there were always multiple spots to visit and from a high vista you could see tempting ledges or plateaus hiding secrets. Gris’ 2-D display can’t offer the same. Though the view will often pan back to show more of the surroundings, it’s typically just to indicate the start and end points of the next puzzle – the A to B path you’re about to work out.
Pathfinding was exciting at first, as I drank in the visuals of the ruins coming to life around the woman, but there are long stretches between the environmental puzzles where there is little to do, especially when back-tracking, looking for a challenge passed by on the initial run-through. Stages repeat many of the same design elements, and once or twice I was repeating a path without realizing it. Gris is a lovely experience as chill exploration, but could have kept me engaged in the flow by tightening up the space between puzzles and challenges or by including more of them on the way, as a reward for simple traversal, rather than allowing me to break and wonder if I was on my way to the next orb or just lost.
Gris was pleasant but ultimately disappointing. It’s earned a C+ grade from me. Go ahead and pick it up if you’re looking for a low-key game to while away a few hours with pleasing visuals and melancholy music. If you’re looking for more intense platformers or Metroid-Vania style games, you’re not going to find that here, in this beautiful desolation.
Gris aggregate review score is 85 on Metacritic, as of this writing. Game software was purchased by the reviewer. Art assets from the Nomada Studio, copyright 2018. Reference links: Nomada Studio, Devolver Digital, Metacritic